REVIEW: Bridie O’Brien, ‘Highway Heart’ Launch
“We’re going to take it now to a different level,” announced Sydney songwriter Bridie O’Brien, changing gears between songs at the launch of her album Highway Heart. “We’re all about levels… they’re also called moods”.
Newtown’s fabled Sandringham Hotel was packed to check out the first gig in a national tour to launch ‘Highway Heart’ – a wonderful album full of O’Brien’s mood pieces. The title alone is evocative – a short story in two words – and the album’s cinematic breadth would be a challenge to reproduce with a stripped down band in a live environment.
That is all worked so beautifully well was helped along by the presence of Syd Green, the album’s producer and only other muso on the recording, who played one of the two drum kits and some ethereal lapsteel slide. He also grinned a lot, as did second drummer, Nerida Wu and bass player Oliver Pieterse – and why not: out front Bridie was whipping up a storm, a joyous storm of rootsy abandon and rock’n’roll righteousness.
O’Brien is one hell of a guitar player, as was evident in the opener, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ – which is also Highway Heart’s atmospheric opener –ominously building layers of looped Stratocaster shards and blues lines which fuzzes out in its own fog of beats and chanted vocal.
The power of the two drummers lifted the whole thing off the stage over the next two pieces – ‘Lonely’ and ‘Disco Lights’ – melding into a funky skin and wood machine of irresistible force. Then O’Brien took it to a ‘different level’ – clearing the stage and working through the title track, ‘Highway Heart’ with only her guitar and the plaintive cello of Kate Adams beneath her voice. It was a good move and had a stunning effect – her remarkable voice framed by only the barest structure.
‘Violent Interpretations of Your Sexy Glance’ from 2006’s Soft Side of Dark was followed by her soulfully rootsy version of Rose Tattoo’s fuck-off mission statement (and one suspects, Bridie O’Brien’s too…) ‘Rock’n’Roll Outlaw’. Its 12 bar swagger got the room rocking and shone, like dirty chrome, with O’Brien’s tough and edgy guitar playing.
The sweet and hopeful love song ‘New Year’s Day’ – “It’s only oxygen between us” – gave way to the rattling country chase of ‘Dead Or Alive’ (O’Brien observing wryly on the fact that a song about ‘shooting fish in the back paddock’ appears to be the radio hit of the album…). Scooted along by Wu’s double-time drum groove and the hiccuping harp of guest Stu West, ‘Dead Or Alive’ reminded again me why I enjoy O’Brien’s music – so much of it harks back to pre-ProTools rock music, with all its inherent excitement and percussive acoustic flavours (superbly and intelligently captured by producer Green across the entire Highway Heart album).
A suitably scary ‘World’s Gone Mad’ (not as chilling as the album version but close) and then Matt Tonks got up to guest on the chorus of Soft Side of Dark’s lovely countryish ‘Liar’ and it was all over.
But the room wouldn’t let her go, so after some hushed consultation with the band they rocked out a not-so-hushed version of KISS’s ‘(I Wanna) Rock and Roll All Night’ – played and handclapped with not the merest dot of inner-city irony. You can’t beat a Highway Heart – you can’t beat a rock’n’roll heart either, and Bridie O’Brien has one of the biggest on the block.
(Prior to the ‘Highway Heart’ Launch, I asked O’Brien a series of questions about her music, the album and her thoughts and inspirations. Here are her responses:)
1. How do you feel your music has evolved since your first album, Soft Side of Dark?
If anything the vibe has gone back to bare bones…. Bones and voice. There is more emphasis on vocal exploration throughout Highway Heart. It is grittier, my guitar playing and vocal delivery are closer to representing the wound on this album. I don’t think I will hit the mark till album 3 or 4. It is also not as instrumentally cluttered as Soft Side was. So perhaps the evolution is evident in its stripped back approach.
2. Who are your main influences – songwriting AND performing?
Songwriting: Sting, Frank Zappa, Prince, Ernest Ranglin, Jimi Hendrix, The Eagles, Lonnie Johnson, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Leonard Cohen, Bonnie Prince Billy, Neil Young, Don Walker, Bruce Springsteen, John Frusciante, Paul Simon, Kurt Cobain, Buck 65. ——- Annie Lennox, Johnette Napolitano, Be Good Tanyas, Gillian Welch, Fleetwood Mac, Mazzy Star, Nina Simone, Cyndi Lauper, Janis Ian. A mixture of all of the above.
Performing: Early Cold Chisel, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Chrissy Amplett, Eva Cassidy, Led Zepplin, Nirvana.
3. How do you write a song? What triggers the process? How do you know when the process is finished?
I approach songs from a poetic perspective, always. The lyrics can appear mysterious, but they are just there to engage the imagination of the listener. Every lyric comes from a real experience, there is no fiction, however there is grey space.
Writing occurs when overwhelming emotion, directly attached to vague imagery and distant melody, storm.
This usually results in me grabbing a guitar and seeing what happens then and there.
Other times it happens without me really planning it. I spend all of my free time playing the guitar, hardly any singing.
In the past frustration and emotion would hang out over some beers until a caped, flaming, egotistical songwriter would smash into the room wielding a distorted guitar and proceed to sort everyone out. (Gee what a wanker). But sometimes that’s what it took. These days song writing is a strange undertaking. I am appreciating the good ones more and more as I get older. A song can trickle down from my semi consciousness over a period of days until I take notice of the leak. A good song will make me feel like I have articulated a sentiment on all levels imaginable. That is emotionally, visually, sonically and psychologically. I’m not sure one sets out to write a good song. I think the song rewards the writer when it’s time.
4. What drew you to record with Syd Green at Mononest?
Syd invited me to record my second album with him in 2009. I had met him before, but revered him as music royalty, so I was shy around him. I remember thinking, “wow… imagine if I got to work with someone like Syd Green one day”. I was absolutely shocked and buzzing with energy when he suggested we give it a go. He has since become like a brother to me. I adore him. He is much more than a gifted musician, he is much more than a cutting edge engineer, he has something that is in my opinion getting hard to find these days….that is true ‘cool’. Kind natured and humble in his manner with an all knowing smile. His creative process is intuitive, and the space to explore the possibilities comfortably exists. We soon found we worked well together. Mononest is a gorgeous place to record. The studio has ample space and an exotic array of percussive instruments on hand, as well as some interesting old amps. Syd and Elhi Green have furnished the studio grounds with magic dust. The vibe is positive and I always leave full of hope and wonder.
5. What place do you think unadorned, heartfelt music such as yours holds in current society?
I think my music is a bit of a lost puppy… *grin*.
I can’t easily define today’s society. I haven’t owned a TV for 15 months, just a record player and a computer.
I know my music will be ignored by the masses, and I am ok with that. It makes sense, because my music is very personal and probably wont resonate with many people, but maybe someone will feel a connection and when that happens it is a great feeling.
I find most modern chart topping music egregious. I didn’t grow up listening to soul music, because there was so much soul in rock n roll back in the day. I have always loved the Rock n Roll. And it was great! – but there has been a shift in what people consider to be good music.
I like music that affects me, any genre, but it has to move me. I am hard pressed to find numerous examples in current music charts. But humans need music and I need to make it, so hopefully that means there is a place for me somewhere in there.
6. Who do you imagine your songs speak to?
The broken hearted hero.
7. Can you pick three or four tunes that you will be performing at your launch (pref from the current LP) and give me a line or two about them (meaning? inspiration? insights?
DEAD OR ALIVE: This is a word for word true story of putting stranded catfish out of their misery during the drought of 1994. The song was written 2 days before it was recorded.
HIGHWAY HEART: I visualised this song as a scene in a movie before it was written. It is a song about lost love, but perhaps the love is one’s own mind. The protagonist switches.
WORLD’S GONE MAD: I wrote this song during my 10 years of exile from my parents. It is just a homage to the absurdity of religion, sexuality and the feeling of hopelessness.
DISCO LIGHTS: I wrote the main riff and lyrics for this spontaneously during sound check at a show 3 years ago. The song evolved and is my personal favourite. It is about letting go of the child within and moving towards the fire within. The imagery is thick, discerningly abstract and personal. I wail ‘MARY’ alot in the song. This is because Mary is the middle name of all of the women in my family within 3 generations.